Where in the World Cup: In China, we cheer for everyone

To Canadian soccer fans out there, Chinese fans’ dedication to the World Cup might be tough to understand. We don’t even have a national team that made the tournament this year! But the fact is Chinese fans purchased over 37,000 tickets to support other countries in Russia this summer, making them one of the largest supporter groups at the tournament.

This confused me.

To be honest, I was never a big fan of soccer. However, since the start of the World Cup, all my friends and relatives (including my 70-year-old grandparents) turned themselves into enthusiastic followers of Cristiano Ronaldo. Why? Overwhelmed by the atmosphere, I decided to sit down with my friends and figure it out by watching a late night soccer game — this time though, an Argentina versus Croatia game.

After a whole night of drinking, screaming, eating and pinching myself to keep awake, I found my pathway to understanding the subtle relationship between the Chinese people and their extraordinary passion for the World Cup.

Drinks and snacks are a must have for World Cup watching.
Drinks and snacks are a must have for World Cup watching. Elizabeth Wang

Here are a few things you might want to know about Chinese fans when they’re watching soccer and my experience watching in Shenzhen, China:

An awkward history

The fact is that China has only gotten into the World Cup once — yes, only once. In 2002, the China national soccer team made their first World Cup appearance in Gwangju, South Korea. Within only nine days, China saw nine goals overall go past them from three different countries: 2-0 to Costa Rica, 4-0 to Brazil and 3-0 to Turkey. They finished 31st out of 32 teams that year. Ever since, many Chinese fans barely dream of seeing our national team playing top tier international soccer.

Instead, poking lighthearted fun at our national team has become something to do in China when international soccer is on. And who knows? Maybe we’ll make it to the next one — with 48 teams instead of 32 potentially headed to Qatar in 2022 (decision still to be made), we may stand a chance.

Friends watching the German team play.
Friends watching the German team play. Elizabeth Wang

The crayfish culture

The “crayfish & watermelon” pairing is kind of like the Chinese version of fish and chips. In China, crayfishes are called Xiaolongxia, which means “tiny lobster.” Chinese people see crayfish cuisine as a pop culture symbol of Chinese food. It’s a well-known late night snacks in bars and clubs. There’re at least 15 different types. We also have crayfish pizza, crayfish burgers and crayfish paninis (from KFC). You name it, we have it. In case you want to know what it tastes like, it's like lobster but with only one difference: it’s more difficult to eat because you have to peel off its tiny, fussy shell before you eat it. Before we started to watch the game, my friends ordered five pounds of crayfish.

“Me and my five roommates can finish 10 pounds in one night,” my friend said. He also told me that before the World Cup started, China exported over 10o thousand crayfish to Russia as frozen food. “Even my crayfish went to the World Cup.”

Gambling

Well, I probably shouldn’t talk about this too much. You only need to know that gambling is still largely forbidden by the government in China. But it’s still fun to consider who you would place bets on. My hypothetical money was on Argentina to win that night against Croatia — it didn’t pan out.

So, here comes the question from the beginning: why watch the World Cup? As an international student from China, I’d say it’s fairly simple. After all, we are like all other people in the world, we all just need a little bit of festivity to light up the long, hot summer — maybe with some crayfish too, though.

~This article has been updated to reflect the city in which the writer experienced the World Cup, and expand on crayfish culture